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Mike Johnson

What is going on in House Republican leadership?

Just this week, Speaker Mike Johnson has:

Seen Democrats win a special election in New York, narrowing the already minuscule GOP majority to two votes.

Lost a sixth rule vote on the House floor — a measure that would’ve allowed an increase in the state-and-local tax (SALT) deduction — when 18 Republicans bucked their own leadership and voted no. This Republican majority has lost more rule votes than any other majority in five decades, a stunning sign of weakness.

Abruptly pulled a bill to overhaul FISA due to Republican infighting. The GOP leadership said the House would vote on the bill before locking down the votes, despite some senior Republicans raising internal objections. This is the second time Johnson had to pull a FISA bill this Congress.

Seen another committee chair announce his resignation. Rep. Mark Green (R-Tenn.), chair of the Homeland Security Committee, is leaving Congress after only six years. The 59-year-old Green — the fourth committee chair to retire — just led the impeachment of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

Decided against putting a bill on the floor to provide billions of dollars in new aid to Israel without offsets. Just a week ago, Johnson allowed a vote on Israel aid that he knew was going to fail.

Provided absolutely no insight to rank-and-file lawmakers on how he’ll handle the Senate’s bipartisan $95 billion foreign aid package. Johnson said the bill isn’t a priority because the federal government is scheduled to shut down in a few weeks.

Witnessed the House Intelligence Committee chair issue a dire public warning about a “serious national security threat” to the country, only to have Senate Intelligence Committee leaders and the White House downplay the issue.

This is the most chaotic, inefficient and ineffective majority we’ve seen in decades covering Congress. It started this way under former Speaker Kevin McCarthy and has gotten worse under Johnson.

And things aren’t going to get easier. The House is leaving town today by 2:30 p.m. for the 13-day Presidents Day recess. When members return on Feb. 28, there will be only three days to fund a huge swath of the federal government or face a partial shutdown. There’s another full shutdown deadline a week later.

Fair or not, there’s a tremendous amount of criticism focused on Johnson right now. The 52-year-old Louisiana Republican — speaker for just 113 days — is a very pleasant man. But he and his top aides, most of whom are new to the leadership, have still failed to get a feel for governing successfully. And hanging over this is the possibility of another motion to vacate if Johnson alienates hardline conservatives.

“Watching Speaker Johnson, who I have great respect for, grow up has been really fascinating. I just hope he has the time to finish growing up,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), a 30-year veteran of the House.

Johnson truly keeps his own counsel. His leadership colleagues often begin the week having no idea what the speaker is thinking or what he hopes to achieve. The speaker was also particularly hamstrung by having House Majority Leader Steve Scalise out for the last six weeks. Scalise has deep relationships across the conference and a true sense for fault lines within the GOP. Johnson has at times ignored the guidance of House Majority Whip Tom Emmer as well.

“There’s always this internal struggle [for Johnson] being a movement conservative and then having to be pragmatic. So that’s playing out a lot,” said a top Republican of Johnson. “It feels like chaos. Rudderless.”

Some of the power centers in the House Republican Conference seem more eager to buck Johnson than help him. House Judiciary Committee Chair Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), for example, has been yanked around on the rewrite of FISA, a top priority for the outspoken conservative. Many factions in Johnson’s conference feel the same way on other issues.

Unlike speakers before him, this House Republican Conference was built without Johnson’s input or effort. McCarthy was the lead architect for this majority, having traveled incessantly for hundreds of candidates across the country. Former Speaker Paul Ryan led two committees, helping build relationships with dozens of lawmakers as he wrote budgets and passed bills. Former Speaker John Boehner had two stints in leadership, led a committee and traveled all year for the GOP.

Johnson has done none of that. He’s a backbencher plucked from obscurity to be the third-highest-ranking official in the American government.

The FISA episode is nearly a perfect encapsulation of Johnson’s curious decision-making. Johnson blew past warnings from his own leadership and Democrats, who said it was a mistake to even float a possible vote this week. Yet the House Rules Committee met and floor action was tentatively scheduled for Thursday.

By Wednesday afternoon, with Rules in a recess, Johnson pulled the plug and the leadership announced that they were cutting the week short.

There’s a charitable explanation here. Johnson does have the smallest Republican majority in contemporary times. Here’s Scalise on what Johnson has to contend with:

— Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan


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